When he first moved to the United States from his home country of France in 1990, Philippe Schmit worked as a sous chef under famous chef Eric Ripert -- a fellow Frenchman -- in the New York kitchens of Le Bernadin, eventually moving on to become executive chef at La Goulue, then later Orsay. Now, 22 years later, Schmit has earned the same prestigious title for himself that Ripert also shares: Maître Cuisinier de France, or Master Chef of France.
Schmit will be formally inducted into the organization at a ceremony in Perpignan, France on March 26. His induction will mark the first time that a Texas-based chef has received the title, which has only been awarded to fewer than 50 chefs in the United States. (There are 200 Master Chefs in France, and 50 or so outside of France in other countries around the world.)
"It is a great honor to be recognized, as this is the most coveted award in France," said Schmit. "Maîtres are looked to as ambassadors of the French cuisine all around the world and this is exactly how I present my cooking." Schmit moved to Houston originally to open Bistro Moderne, and now runs the acclaimed Philippe restaurant in the Galleria area, which is notable for its Texan-French fusion cuisine.
"For many, a French restaurant means hard-to-read menus and overly complex, heavy dishes," says Schmit. "I wanted to change that perception and bring Houstonians those same classic French techniques, but presented in a more accessible and casual way."
The Paris-based Association des Maîtres Cuisiniers de France has bestowed these titles on chefs for the last 60 years, chefs who uphold the organization's motto of aspiring "to preserve and spread the French culinary arts, encourage training in cuisine, and assist professional development." Schmit will be one of only 10 French chefs to receive the Maître title this year.
It's a credit to Houston's growing influence as one of the nation's great emerging food cities that it's the first city in Texas to have its own Maître Cuisinier de France. Schmit recognized the city's potential when he first moved here in 2005.
"While working in New York, I was given the opportunity to move to Houston and start my own restaurant, which was an incredible opportunity," Schmit says. "I had never been to the city before, but in the course of visiting over two weekends, I met Bryan Caswell, Robert Del Grande, and many other famous local chefs. Everyone was very gracious. There was no doubt in my mind that I would stay."
And despite our shortage of great baguettes and the loss of his job when Bistro Moderne closed in 2007, Schmit did indeed stay in Houston, eventually opening his namesake restaurant to great acclaim last year.
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For Schmit, it's about more than just the honors or the title, though. "I wanted to become a Master Chef for my father," he says.
"With this award, I honor him. He always encouraged me and helped me find my first restaurant job, so this closes the circle. And that's pretty cool."